A number of years ago, my spiritual director, a priest, went on a leave of absence because of various troubles. He was considering leaving the priesthood.
I wrote a heartfelt letter to offer my thoughts on what he was facing. Recently, I learned of another priest-friend who is intending to leave active ministry. Someone who read the original letter encouraged me to consider publishing it for the benefit of others. I offer it here, in a slightly revised version, for those priests experiencing a crisis in their vocations. My hope is that it can be of encouragement to priests and all those facing crises in their vocations.
Promises and vows are the precondition for true freedom and flourishing. And while the letter to a priest-in-crisis was hardly the place to invoke scandal, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the scandal and damage done to the People of God by a priest turning his back on his promises. This shakes us to our core and destabilizes the laity in their own vocations. May those experiencing crises trust in the Lord who led them to offer themselves in those promises and vows.
First, let me say that I think you were thrust into a difficult position. I hadn’t realized this was the first time you ever lived alone, but to come from the high of living in Rome with many brother priests and seminarians to Podunk, Michigan is the definition of culture shock. To be loaded up with being pastor and having several other big duties is obviously a lot. I am very concerned with this dynamic in our Midwestern dioceses. I know we are low on men, but there has to be a better way. Thus, in one sense, I think your vocational crisis is very natural and actually to be expected. And given that we know that there is more than nature at work here, it is all the more to be expected. You have a big target on your back as a priest, especially as a smart, good looking, normal, dynamic, young messenger of the Gospel. The Accuser wants you to stumble, wants you to doubt, wants you to question. Being isolated only intensifies that.
Second, I want to appropriate some words that Msgr. Giussani, the Founder of Communion and Liberation, spoke to a priest in a similar situation as yours. Fr. Aldo Trento, who works with the poorest of the poor in Paraguay, recounts how Fr. Giussani saved his vocation. Fr. Aldo had gone to Fr. Giussani and told him that he, “already a priest, was in love with a woman.” Msgr. Giussani’s response was radical and turned everything on its head. It wasn’t a scolding. It wasn’t a rigid, moralistic response.
Rather it was this:
Father Aldo, how beautiful, this falling in love is the greatest thing that could happen to you. Now your relationship with Christ will be more radical, you will not have any more doubts or uncertainties.
I am blown away every time I read that response. He absolutely overturned the conventional categories and showed Fr. Aldo that there was a both/and response to his situation. Where Father Aldo saw a contradiction between his love for this woman and his vow of chastity, Fr. Giussani saw no contradiction. He saw the possibility of going deeper into his vocation, of loving this woman and affirming his vocation.
I imagine in your situation you have been presented with these either/ors. You have probably also been castigated by some and affirmed by others. It is the old dualism, the Cartesianism of our world. X implies not Y. I think what Giussani was pointing at, brilliantly, is the possibility of affirming both x and y. You are a man. You love women. Perhaps, you love a particular woman. Great. Beautiful. This is as it should be. You aren’t some cold fish without the desires of the heart. You are alive. Thank God!
But that’s not the end of the story. I think Giussani points at the deeper question to push forward to: how do I love women, and this woman, within the concrete circumstances of my path, my vocation, my life. It is not an either/or. It is a question of how I love the woman in front of me within the call to which God has already brought me. That to me is an exciting and wonderful invitation. It rejects the world’s categories.
The story, recounted in George Weigel’s Witness to Hope, of Saint John Paul II’s trip to the Tatra Mountains when he obtained the nickname, “Wujek,” also comes to mind here. Recall that a young Father Wojtyła was supposed to go to the mountains with a group of young students—women and men. Father Wojtyła arrived at the train station for the trip but the men had an exam rescheduled. The women were locked out of their school. Perhaps the “sane” thing, the “moral” thing to do, would have been to scuttle the trip. But Father Wojtyła in his great freedom jumped on the train, told the women to get on, and told them to call him Uncle. They had a wonderful weekend. He demonstrated a radical freedom and upended conventions. He knew that he was free to love those women without any sort of possession and without any sort of scandal.
I’ve always been struck by that anecdote because I think it shows the radical otherness and openness of the celibate vocation. It would be so easy to make celibacy a wall, a barrier, a form of cutting off from the world. I think what Giussani and Saint John Paul II were showing is that it is actually a way to be more fully present to the world.
Third, related to this, are words that Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete wrote back in 2002 at the height of the abuse scandal. It is a reflection about the meaning of celibacy. Msgr. Albacete says that the value of celibacy isn’t in the ability it gives priest “to respond to the needs of the faithful without reservations,” but something deeper. Celibacy, as a friend reminded him, helps “spouses and parents understand that to love is not to own, but to affirm, to help, to let go.” Albacete “understood then that celibacy has more to do with poverty than with sex. It is the radical outward expression of the poverty of the human heart, the poverty that makes true love possible by preventing it from corrupting into possession or manipulation.”
I think that is such a beautiful insight and one that dovetails with Giussani’s point. I think Giussani was saying to Fr. Aldo: You love this woman. You made a vow of chastity. How do you live both of those truths? Your celibacy allows you to affirm this woman in her fullness, to love her in her fullness.
Fourth, I think back on what my former spiritual director, Fr. Brian Daley, S.J., wrote to me after I had announced my engagement to my wife after a long and torturous discernment. The long and short of Fr. Daley’s advice was to point me to Matthew 7:7-11. He wrote:
If your child asks you for bread, would you give him a stone? If he asks for fish, would you give him a scorpion?” And if we, who are evil, would never do this to our child, would God who is all good do it to us? After we have asked so earnestly for light and guidance, would he let you make a disastrous decision? Would he deceive you into thinking something was his will and his gift, when it was really a destructive choice? We simply can’t ascribe that kind of malevolence to God! And while there is never any automatic recipe for knowing what his will is, you certainly know that you have given this more than enough thought, prayer, reflection; you’ve asked the advice of all kinds of people who love you; you’ve looked at it prudentially, looked at your inclinations and daydreams thought everything possible to think about, asked every question. Now you simply have to trust the Lord; trust that he has been with you and is with you; and trust yourself, as a man of God.
Fr. Daley’s advice is advice for anyone who has chosen his vocation after a long discernment. It is directly applicable to your situation. The Lord led you to seminary and through many years of seminary formation. He was leading you and speaking to you during that whole time. You were praying, in a state of grace, earnestly seeking God’s will. After many points where you could have diverged from pursuing the priesthood, you were ordained.
You must trust that God did not lead you down a dead end. He didn’t ask you to promise yourself to celibacy to pull the rug out from under you at some point—years into your priesthood. While I cannot know all that you went through, I think I can speak with certainty that God does not work by tugging us to and fro. You are a man of deep prayer, deep learning, deep love of Christ. You earnestly sought God’s will. While God doesn’t call on the red phone to tell us that we are doing something wrong or right, I do think He makes His will abundantly clear over time, through His still voice and whisper. He gives us bread when we ask for bread. You asked for bread repeatedly. He gave you bread. You said, “Yes.” God is not fickle and arbitrary.
You can trust in your discernment. Indeed, your discernment is to be trusted over the doubts and questions and crises of today. It is the Devil who is the accuser, who tries to twist us around and question ourselves.
A few final thoughts. First, no matter what vocation you are in, the Cross will find you. You are suffering loneliness and heartache and whatever else. The grass on the other side may seem green, but it includes its share of loneliness, heartache, and suffering. I love my wife and I think we have a great marriage, but the simple fact is that I cannot fulfill her and she cannot fulfill me. I am an ass to her too often. I’m selfish. There are no guarantees. When we married, she did not have in mind that at age 29 she would be in a waiting room while her husband underwent open heart surgery to repair an aneurysm in his aorta and that he might die on the table and widow her.
I don’t share any of that to lament, but to make the simple point that any vocation is really about a jumping off into the unknown. The vows my wife and I made are the anchors that we put into the rock in the mountain before we started climbing up. They are the necessary precondition to be able to deal with the falls and the tugs and the pulls and the unexpected drops and slips. There is absolutely no guarantee.
I think that a secular priest or a married couple or a Franciscan sister has to view his promises, their vows, her vows, respectively, as the anchor that allows him/them/her to weather the storms that comes upon them as they climb the mountain. If the anchor was hammered in after a long period of discernment and thinking, we have to trust that it wasn’t anchored in vain.
My final comment is that I think the Evil One tempts us—whatever state of life we are in—to think we can go it alone. Or, slightly differently, he tempts us to think that we have to go it alone. We absolutely cannot go it alone. I’ve heard it said that a Christian alone is a Christian in danger. This seems true to me. A husband who thinks he can be chaste without the help of his wife and good Christian male friends is kidding himself.
I think the Evil One wants us to think it is us against the world or us against him. Tell the Devil to go to hell. We aren’t alone. We have the communion of saints, but also our friends, our family, our parishioners, our brother priests, friends, etc., there to be partners on the path to our heavenly destiny. Father, you are not alone! You are loved, you have friends and family. You have so many people praying for you. Call me and I will be there to visit with you. If you are lonely or need a place to be with people, you have an open door here. I know of scores of people who would be there for you. The Devil wants you to think you are alone. Let’s call his bluff.
I want to close by saying this. I love you. I care for you. I desire and pray for your good. No matter what you decide, I will be your friend. Still, I’ll be darned if I don’t put my finger on the scale and say that I think your promises are actually the wonderful and beautiful precondition for you to love more deeply and truly. When you were ordained, God gave you a great gift. The promises of your ordination day are the very things that give you the freedom to navigate the situation you are now in. They allow you to turn everything on its head, to say yes to love and to celibacy.
I love you my friend.
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